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Creating compelling and interesting stakes

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Firefly, Mar 15, 2019.

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  1. Firefly

    Firefly Minstrel

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    I've been thinking a lot about stakes recently, and how to make them more interesting. It sometimes feels like every fantasy story I read has the exact same stakes. Usually, the protagonist's life is at risk, as well as someone they care about. What I've noticed, though, is that while those stakes are technically both high and personal, (Which is usually the default advice for creating stakes) they in no way guarantee a story will have strong tension. I'm curious what other things you've used (or seen other writers use) as stakes in their stories, and if you have used life-and-death stakes, what techniques you've used to make them more compelling. How do you make your reader care about the plot as much as the characters do?
     
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  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I like to try and make the stakes personal. I want to make them important to the main character, and I want the reader to care for the main character. In this way, the MCs stakes become important to the reader too - at least in theory.
    I also try to up the stakes as the story goes, ideally by increasing the character's (and the reader's) understanding of the stakes.

    Example:
    In Lost Dogs #1, Roy gets told that he will have to lose a fight, or he won't get any retirement money. That's basically it.
    At first, it's no big deal at all. Roy's got plenty of money and he'll be able to look after himself anyway. Sure, it might be a bit tight, but he'll manage.
    Throughout the story, it's revealed that the implications of not taking the money are a lot more serious than what it would first seem. It's also revealed that Roy's reasons for not wanting to take the money aren't all that good, and perhaps he'd be better off letting them go.

    So the whole thing unravels and reveals itself to be a whole lot more serious than what was first thought.

    Make the reader care about the character first. :)
     
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  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    The most common stake I've encountered in fantasy is the threat of an upended, changed world that is much darker, more vile, terrifying and, sometimes, infuriating. What happens if you put Voldemort in charge? What if the empire built on slavery, genocide, etc., wins?

    On one hand, this may seem like a grand, impersonal question—but not if you imagine your beloved characters being forced to live in it. The indignity and horror of the situation can cut close.

    Another personal stake I've enjoyed, typically in m/m romance fantasy, is the threat to the relationship. The threat might come from the outside or sometimes from the two individuals personally, or both. In a way, this is also the threat of an "intolerable future," if you love both characters and want to see them build a beautiful future together.
     
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2019
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  4. WordyWonderland

    WordyWonderland Scribe

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    Well. I think it matters, which story structure you use. Are use using the Hero’s Journey? Then, it isn't such easy but it's possible. Just think of Harry Potter and compare it with Percy Jackson. Harry has Dumbledore as a Mentor, Percy has Chiron as his mentor. In the film, it's the same! While Neo decides to help after he was caught by the agents. Luke decides it after his uncle and aunt were killed. The climax of Cinderella is when Cinda is at the ball and when it's midnight. There she has to escape. Now the prince is looking after his mysterious friend. In Romeo and Juliet, the climax is when they try to poison themselves to be together forever. You see, it's possible. Just choose what's best for your story and mind. Maybe you should take a look at the Greek and Norse Mythology. They’re short myths but you see well the stakes.
     
  5. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    I agree that the stakes must mean something to the main character - is they fail it must change things for them in a dramatic way.
    However, you can heighten the stakes but having that failure affect other people.
    Example: Boy's mother is lying of disease and he mist travel to bizaroo land to find the cure. If he fails his mother dies, he is motherless and the people of their community have no healer.
     
  6. Helen

    Helen Sage

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    Provocation. Generally, what is likely to increasingly provoke the character. That in itself is an arc.
     
  7. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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    As a reader, I find the most compelling stakes to be those that I can personally connect with. As a parent, for example, I find stakes that involve a child's well-being to be powerful.
     
  8. Firefly

    Firefly Minstrel

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    I understand the idea, but this is exactly what I have questions about. I can't tell you how many stories I've read where the story goal was to find the cure for the mother or the sister or the boyfriend or whichever other character, and while it mattered to the protagonist, I as the reader didn't care at all whether they succeeded or not. At the same time, there are other stories with similar setups that I've been extremely invested in. I'm trying to figure out the difference.
     
  9. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Let me just get this straight, my brain is very slow tonight.
    You read one story of a boy trying to save his Mother and care, then another and find you don't care?

    If so sit and compare the stories. What did the writer do that the other didn't to make you care so much.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    At a guess--we can only guess without specific examples--I'd say that in the story you enjoyed, the author managed to make you invested in the protagonist. They were funny or tragic or in some other way a sympathetic character. The author took the time needed to make you invested. And in the story that you did not enjoy, even though the stakes were the same, you never connected with the protagonist and so didn't care about the cure.

    This, of course, only pushes the question back a layer. It becomes: how do we make the reader care about our protagonist? There are any number of books, parts of books, articles, and posts on that topic.
     
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  11. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    I agree that the reader must care about the character first. I would also add that the stakes must remain relevant, or have some tension that always keeps the reader ‘caught up’. I don’t really know how to describe this except to compare the Conan movies. The original with Arnold Schwarzenegger seems more compelling to me, whereas the Jason Mamoa one seems disjointed. I think this is due to the protagonist and antagonist having different stakes, different plots that just bump into each other at the end.

    Also ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. While not my favourite Avenger, I think this is a standout film. The stakes are multifaceted. There are the external stakes (stop Hydra), internal stakes (remain true to his ideals), and personal, emotional stakes (save Bucky). All three tie together, and also cause conflict. I find that when there are multiple stakes to play for, when there is no clear win/win, often the story is more compelling.
     
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  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    For the failure, I would have guessed that the author didn't take the time to make the reader care about the threatened loved one. For the successful story, the author did.

    I think the trope is similar to fridging? Used in a simplistic way, the threat to a cardboard character, who is largely vague or indistinct for the reader, isn't going arouse a lot of sympathy in the reader even if the main POV protagonist cares about that character. Such a character is a prop to give the main character a motivation or to define a story goal. Intellectually, I may understand the main character's anguish and the motivation to save the loved one—but it might still feel like a prop.

    Although not an exact example, Arthur Weasley's predicament in Order of the Phoenix comes to mind. In a dream, Harry witnesses him being attacked by Nagini. That episode is terrifying in large part because I, as a reader, am already invested in the whole Weasley clan, including Arthur. But step back and ask me about the opening scene in Goblet of Fire and whether the murder of Frank Bryce meant as much to me ... no. Who's Frank Bryce, you might ask? :sneaky:

    While it's true that Harry didn't know Frank Bryce and thus didn't particularly care about him, unlike Arthur Weasley, I think the fact that we also know little about Frank Bryce but have formed a bond with Arthur Weasley makes a bigger difference.

    I'd compare this to that old saying, Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction. If I am looking at the main character and seeing that main character care for another character, my sympathy for the fate of that other character isn't going to be as strong as when I'm looking directly at that other character and feeling the presence of that other character in the same way as the main character feels his presence. In other words, I am in sympathy with the main character because I, too, love that other character. I and the main character are "looking outward together in the same direction."

    The HP examples I gave aren't cases of setting the whole plot up as a mission to save a character. I think if you are going to use that as the basis for a whole story, you'll be lucky if this story is the second or third book in the series and readers have already had time to come to care about that other character, heh. If not, then more will be needed in the first third of the book to set that plot up effectively. You'll need to give readers a reason to care about the threatened character quite apart from the main POV character's feelings for that character. A simple fridge won't do.
     
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  13. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    One thing I've learned is that if you write really good characters—you know, ones that are three dimensional with emotional arcs that take them from point A to point B in a story—your readers will care about those characters and by default worry about them and what is going on around them as well.

    For example, the heroine in one of my recent stories came from a rather muddled background. She'd suffered abuse at the hands of her father and then also her boss. She fled from that circumstance via the help of a friend, but the friend had tricked the hero into taking the heroine in. The readers already had two chapters of getting to know the hero, his hopes and dreams and the problem he was trying to solve, before the heroine came along. When the heroes meet, the readers are already in anticipation of how this problem will be resolved since hero dude has been forcibly paired with a person he wasn't expecting. The rest of the story focuses on the dynamic of their relationship and how they work/don't work together to solve this problem. They are basically simple people that the readers have been able to understand and connect to. The problem they face (and the dangers as a result thereof) add anticipation and curiosity for the readers because they can relate to the heroes as real people.

    So write good characters that move your readers and they will care what happens to those characters= stakes.
     
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  14. WordyWonderland

    WordyWonderland Scribe

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    Well. Let's say your story's about a woman, who wants to make dinner. There you can write a lot about. But the basics stakes are:

    1. Looking for a recipe
    2. Go shopping
    3. Making dinner
    4. Serve it.

    Sounds boring, huh? But how about a hostage-taking during shopping? Or that the house burns? You can turn a boring story into a thrilling one.
     
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